Child Bride (1938)

This is one of the strangest classic exploitation movies ever made, ranking with Chained For Life and The Terror of Tiny Town for sheer weirdness. The cast — largely comprised of unknowns and non-actors, but also including popular Angelo Rossitto (aka Don Barrett) the dwarf — portray a community of lascivious, drunken, lawless, moonshine-making Ozark hillbillies (in California, with Eucalyptus trees much in evidence) who want to marry little girls. Meanwhile, a schoolmarm, who has returned to her native hills to teach her fellow “mountain people” how to read, struggles against the evil custom of child marriage in a state that has, as yet, not enacted a minimum-age marriage law.

Most of the actors are not trained, but the central family of mother (Dorothy Carrol), father (George Humphreys), and daughter (Shirley Mills) are riveting in their realistic depiction of dirt-poor farm life. Mills’ diction and gestures in this film were obviously influenced by the acting style of her famous contemporary, Shirley Temple, a fact that helped her project sincere distress during the more violent and emotionally wrenching scenes. Given her role here, and the naturalness with which she plays it, it is no wonder that Mills was later tapped to play Ruthie Joad in “The Grapes of Wrath.” Angelo Rossitto, as a moonshine stiller, is at his athletic best here, clambering up and down the “Republic rocks” and engaging in an intense fight scene with a full-sized heavy, thus bringing his usual liveliness to an unusual role.

There is quite a bit of animal acting in this film, as it is set on a farm. The early morning scene in which Mills goes out to feed the pigs and gets into the pen to “rescue” a piglet, is very true to life, as is her family’s stern response to what might seem to modern eyes as a cute child-in-the-mud scene: Pigs, especially sows with piglets, can be dangerous if angered, and the film-makers knew that well enough that they did not actually place Mills in confrontation with the sow; a couple of jump-cuts show us what happened. I also enjoyed the uncredited Alsatian Police Dog who played Ritz, a well-trained canine actor with dark fur and long ears who, unless my eyes deceive me, was a Rin-Tin-Tin relative or understudy. There are also a couple of very much UNtrained milk goats in this film — a white Saanen and a black Alpine — who stand nicely to be milked (obviously the role for which they were cast), but provide some over-the-top emoting during a funeral march, as they react with panic and a determination to buck, butt, or escape whenever the dog Ritz (who is very docile) gets near them.

“Child Bride” carries an explicit moral message — “These child-marriages must be stopped!” — but, like most exploitation films, it quickly subverts its own message, in this case with extended scenes of child nudity, as barely pubescent Shirley Mills frolics in a clear mountain pool with her German Shepherd dog. Despite the child nudity, which i frankly found disturbing as it went on so long and showed so many prurient repeat shots of Mills’ backside underwater, there is some charm to this story, and enough plot twists to make it interesting. I think this is a movie that every fan of the obscure and off-beat, every fan of B-movies, and certainly every exploitation fan, will want to see.

Written by Catherine Yronwode